In the November 2018 issue of Law Practice Today, Bobbi Liebenberg wrote an article titled “Too Many Senior Women Are Leaving the Profession.” She described an ABA study that found stark differences in levels of career satisfaction between men and women lawyers, resulting in many women leaving the practice of law altogether.
Some women lawyers leave their firms, however, and seek career satisfaction by creating their own firms with cultures that better align with their needs and values. They come from firms big and small. They range in experience from associates with as few as two or three years of practice to partners in big firms for over a decade. While each firm develops its own personality, some common themes tend to emerge.
First, Why Did They Leave?
The ABA study found that many women lawyers do not feel their efforts and abilities are sufficiently recognized or appreciated at their firms. Women have also shared with me their feelings of being disrespected, which is supported by the ABA study. According to Liebenberg’s article, the study found that 74% of female participants reported receiving demeaning communications, but only 8% of the males did.
Studies show that women in male-dominated professions are judged more harshly than men and that women are often penalized for engaging in the assertive behaviors necessary for professional success. My own unscientific inquiries confirm that women departing from law firms want to get away from undue control, scrutiny, criticism, and restriction. One way to overcome such challenges is to own the firm and be the boss.
Here is a small sample describing why women left.
Melissa Youngman left partnership at a megafirm for “freedom to represent who I want, in the way that I want, in a toxic-free environment.” She also wanted to “guide how the money I earn for the firm is spent.” Kendra Harris, a Florida litigator, says, “I feel I have much more freedom to make unique or challenging arguments to the courts without worrying about someone shooting them down.” What Caroline Conway likes about her new firm is “no mansplaining and no one holding me back.”
Cristina Carrier started her own firm in western Massachusetts at age 55 because she “wanted to be able to push my boundaries and not have to fight for interesting work or complex cases based on other people’s risk aversion.” Christie Arkovich relishes autonomy in marketing her practice. “I blog a lot, have lots of media coverage, several podcasts, videos, e-books, etc. Many in big firms can’t do any of that to promote themselves.”
What Did They Create?
1. Teamwork and Fairness
Recurring themes emerge when women design their own workplace. They prioritize collaboration and evenhandedness. They also pay more attention to the well-being and development of their subordinates. Lynne Sassi describes her Texas firm as having an “atmosphere based on collaboration, transparency, and disclosure.” She strives to broaden the skills of her two associates in areas that law schools don’t teach, including client development, firm finances and working effectively in order to be profitable.
At Danielle Hudson Laughlin’s firm in Georgia, lawyers share personal, professional, and financial goals with one another for accountability. “As I grow, they grow,” she reports.
Cooperative teamwork values at Tracey Spruce’s Boston area firm have been tested by crises in team members lives. Because they have mutual respect, they provide mutual support. Spruce says, “We all pull together to make sure the affected person can completely check out and focus on the personal stuff until they are ready to come back.”
Katelyn Ridenour believes in excellent work and fair compensation. She started her Colorado solo practice about a year ago and already makes more than she did at her old firm. She uses virtual assistants and won’t hire employees until she can compensate them well. “It’s important to me to be able to show my appreciation not just through my words, but also through my pay structure,” she asserts.
2. Flexibility and Family Friendly Environment
Many women who start their own firms seek a more flexible and family-friendly culture that acknowledges the reality of other demands on their time, including their own well-being and healthcare. Quite a few respondents made the switch when they had young children. Melinda Gomez, a family lawyer with a toddler, says, “the ability and freedom to be committed to something other than ‘the firm’ is a key piece of my firm culture and not something I am willing to sacrifice.”
Most of the women-owned firms have some version of flex-time and many allow lawyers and staff to bring their children to work with them when they need to. Regina Banis permitted her paralegal to bring her child to the office from infancy to pre-K. She describes her employees as very loyal and credits the flexibility she permits for family needs. Chelsie Lamie’s personal injury practice in Florida used to have an Infant-at-Work program with a nanny at the office. The firm has since converted to a virtual office where attorneys and staff can work from home. Remote workers gain back the time they formerly spent commuting, as well as dressing for the public.
3. Profit Not the Only Goal
Women-owned firms assess more than profitability in deciding who to represent. Cara Hunt, a criminal defense lawyer in British Columbia, does not accept disrespectful clients or others she has a “bad vibe” about. “We do not make any decisions solely based on profit,” she emphasizes. “Some months aren’t as rich as others because of that, but overall, I feel that honoring myself and my staff has paid off.” Similarly, Rose Meade Hart chooses clients carefully. Her firm is committed to client satisfaction and the happiness and high-quality work of the team.
Like many others, one reason Dawn Levine left was to be able to do more pro bono work. Now she also has “the luxury of being free to refuse any case or client we don’t believe in.” Being the boss allows Kendra Harris to put more focus on work she is passionate about.
4. Casual Environment
Some “boss ladies” and their employees brag about coming to the office in yoga pants and exercise clothes when more formal attire is not necessary. Those with home offices may even work in their pajamas. In addition to welcoming children, some allow pets in the office. Christie Arkovich says clients love the friendly greeting they get by Chloe the rescue cat.
How Do Structures Differ?
Creative structures and compensation systems underpin these non-traditional firms. Some focus more on work goals and targets than hours at the office. Once associates start consistently bringing in enough revenue to pay for their own overhead at Christine Henry Andresen’s Texas reproductive law firm, they can earn a bonus. They have the option to take time off instead, and just make less in bonus.
After about 15 years as a megafirm partner, Chrysta Castaneda formed her own four-person Texas firm doing high-stakes complex litigation. They offer women an opportunity to on-ramp back into law practice as 1099 contractors at “a very nice hourly rate.” Castaneda explains: “They get the benefit of their time when we are not busy and the benefit of their hourly rate when we are. Seems to work well for everyone.”
Brooke Moore and Laura O’Bryan have a limited scope, flat fee, entirely virtual practice that heavily uses technology to streamline services. They communicate with clients via an online practice management secure portal and don’t go to court or deal with opposing counsel. O’Bryan says the structure honors her values for “access to justice, affordable legal services, flexible work life and doing something I’m proud to say I do.” They wanted to share what they created with other women attorneys with similar values, so they established a franchised system called My Virtual Lawyer.
Chelsie Mari Lamie offers a variety of benefits which include flexible hours, remote working, paid holidays and personal time off, paid maternity/paternity leave, paid community volunteering, and leave for bereavement and for caring for sick loved ones. The firm has group outings once per quarter to bond, plus an expense-paid vacation for the whole firm and spouses if the firm meets its annual revenue goal.
Firms also get creative to weather the ups and downs in revenues. At Ann Jacobs’ firm, to manage cash flow they offer a lower hourly rate in lean months but pay additional bonuses in the high-volume months when cash is flush.
What Did They Sacrifice?
Starting your own firm has risks and drawbacks, too. Here are the most commonly cited drawbacks.
Owners don’t have the security of a consistent salary because revenues and expenses fluctuate. Most initially take home less money because new firms have start-up costs and require time to fill the revenue pipeline.
The income of some small firm lawyers does not keep pace with that of their peers in bigger firms. Others build to comparable or even greater income over time. Melanie Bragg advises running a lean enterprise that avoids waste and keeps things simple. Prioritize expenditures. Bragg says, “All of my software and equipment is the best and is in tip-top shape, so it makes things easy and clear.”
2. Fewer “Free” Perks
Solos and small firms can’t spread expenses or leverage bargaining power like a larger firm. Many lament the high costs of healthcare insurance and the absence of benefits like paid maternity leave, sick time and vacation time. S.J. Swanson, a Texas real estate lawyer, misses having a big firm pick up the tab for out-of-pocket expenses like CLE and marketing.
3. Less Administrative Support
Running your own firm means you have a lot of management and administrative duties that you didn’t have as an employee or maybe even as a partner in a larger firm. Dawn Levine misses the freedom to “just do the work.” She points out, “In a big firm if the paper is out or the network goes down, someone is responsible for that. In a small firm, it’s all you.” Many small firm lawyers spend more than half of their working hours on nonbillable work.
4. A Scarcity of Free Time
Somewhat ironically, many respondents to my inquiries bemoaned their lack of free time. Sandy Van points out that it takes a lot of time to start a law firm. In addition to doing the work and client development, you need to establish processes and procedures, including designing templates, workflows, and checklists to run an efficient practice. Jennifer Murray McKay agrees but says that is counterbalanced by the ability to craft your own schedule and not have “command performances” at the office. Nevertheless, solo lawyers find it challenging to go on vacation and know that things are covered in their absence.
5. Less Available Community
Solo and small firm lawyers can feel isolated, especially those who work in home offices. As Katheryn Pfeiffer Anderson says, “There is something about being able to walk down the hall to bounce an idea off a colleague… You can call or email someone, but it’s still different.” That makes it even more important to get involved in bar associations or other affinity groups, which can further deplete free time.
Many law firm renegades assert that the benefits they enjoy outweigh the sacrifices they make. Some declare boldly, “No regrets!” Still, starting a law firm is not for everyone. Perhaps the experiences of these exemplars can inform your own decision.
About the Author
Debra L. Bruce practiced law for 18 years before becoming a Professional Certified Coach. She is president of Lawyer-Coach LLC, which provides executive coaching and training for lawyers on practice management, productivity, and business development. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LawyerCoach.